Behind the Scenes - Greg Johnson Interview

Greg Johnson is no stranger to the armoured avenger. Having been a long time fan of the character, Johnson first wrote for shell head in the immaculate second season of Iron Man in 1995, dramatically revamping and improving the series. He returned to the character last year with both Ultimate Avengers movies. This time, Johnson explores the origin of Iron Man in all new DTV, The Invincible Iron Man. The Marvel Animation caught up with Greg to talk about his work on the DTV.

Marvel Animation Age: The movie will deal with Iron Man’s origin, which is severely dated due the ties to the Vietnam War. Did you feel this is something that could be updated for the modern day or did you feel it would be better to go with an original story?

Greg Johnson: To take full advantage of the futuristic high-tech edge one would expect in an Iron Man story, it didn’t make sense to anchor it in the past by placing it during the Vietnam War. So the decision to place it in present day necessitated changing the venue. But if you had a checklist for the seminal moments and characters that comprise Iron Man’s origin, you’d be pleased with how many of them are present in this movie.

MAA: Has working on the Ultimate Avengers movies and the Iron Man animated series affected how you've presented the characters in the movie? For example, the Mandarin was a very prominent villain in Iron Man. Did that encourage you to go in a different direction with him in the movie?

Johnson: There was a long and diverse list of elements Marvel wanted to see explored in this movie. Classic Iron Man villains were definitely high on the list. But I’d already explored the Mandarin in the traditional sense in the second season of the Iron Man series back in the 90’s, and I wasn’t really inspired to simply recycle that character for this movie. Craig Kyle and I spent a lot of time pondering what new direction we could take his character, but everything we explored felt too small. And then I’d read an article about the terracotta warriors found in ancient Chinese burial sites, and thought how cool it would be if those warriors became the Mandarin’s army. Building from that, we opted to seed his origin in the distant past.

MAA: Is there any particular reason that The Mandarin was used as the villain in the film? Are there any other Iron Man villains you’d have liked to use?

Johnson: The Mandarin seemed the logical choice on a number of levels. One, being considered the main Iron Man villain, it only made sense to introduce him in the first Iron Man animated movie. And two, using him allowed us to juxtapose technology with mysticism.

The four Elementals that are awakened to do the Mandarin’s bidding actually started out as established villains, however. Whirlwind, Inferno, Blizzard, Earth Mover, and even Fin Fang Foom. In fact, Earth Mover is still referred to as such in the movie. But the more the story advanced in the direction of ancient China, the more these characters shifted away from their classic portrayals.

MAA: The Eastern Mythology vs. Western technology appears to play a big part in the film. What made you decide to down this route with the story?

That credit goes to Avi Arad, who got us headed down that path. It was an inspired directive, because it forced Tony Stark to confront a threat that was outside his area of expertise. Through the various books and animated series, we’ve all seen plenty of Iron Man vs. tech, so this was an exciting alternative.

MAA: When writing Tony Stark, was there any particular source material you used (e.g. The Ultimates, Civil War) in terms of characterisation?

Johnson: Not really. He’s got an established personality – very self-absorbed. Keeping him honest to that is what’s important. But for a movie, his character has to go through some growth, experience some kind of epiphany in order to carry the story to a satisfactory conclusion. The things that facilitate that change must be believable, and if we did our job right, you’ll follow him every step of the way.

MAA: The previous Direct To DVD features you’ve work on featured a team of heroes. Do you prefer writing team movies or do you prefer working with a sole central character?

Johnson: I enjoy the challenges of doing both. After having done X-Men: Evolution, and then the Ultimate Avengers movies, however, it was really nice to focus on a story with one main character to follow. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but there’s more screen time in which to really explore what motivates that character, so the emotional content carries more weight.

MAA: If you could choose one of your recent and upcoming works (Ultimate Avengers 1 and 2, Iron Man, Dr Strange) to turn into an ongoing series, which would you choose, and why?

Johnson: Personally, I’d love to explore Doctor Strange as a series. When you see the film, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a franchise built right into the concept that could be very exciting to continue.

MAA: Did the upcoming live action Iron Man movie have any effect on the project?

Johnson: None that I’m aware of. For obvious reasons, the two projects are kept apart.

MAA: Will you be writing any of the unannounced DTVs after Dr. Strange?

Johnson: At this point, my plate is full with getting ‘Wolverine and the X-Men’ on paper and out the door. Once I finish, we’ll see what’s in the pipeline that I might be right for.